For years, developer Gameloft has done outstanding work in approximating the games of others into mobile form, porting larger franchises into micro-form, and making them work. So it shouldn’t come as much surprise they’d eventually want to start a few of their own, applying the tools of the trade to craft something that was uniquely their own. Well, perhaps unique is too strong a word for a game that so openly and without reservation cribs ideas and concepts from others that the word plagiarism comes to mind. Certainly the developer never met a FPS they didn’t like, and that skilled dedication to approximating the work of others really shows here.
With this in mind, writing a review for N.O.V.A. should be the easiest thing in the world to write…or simply write-off. On the surface Gameloft has constructed an entirely derivative experience, with nearly everything you see on-screen ‘borrowed’ from other source material, from the operatic space marines, vehicular combat, and angst-driven story it’s all here. The most visible inspiration is Bungie’s Halo, but other notable sources include hits like Metroid Prime, Dead Space, and even The Conduit.
N.O.V.A. (Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance) is what I like to call a “tofu game”, which should make total sense to fans of the popular cubes of gelatinous bean curd. Put tofu next to chicken and it tastes (somewhat) like chicken. Same with beef, fish, and practically anything else you can throw at it. Gameloft excels at crafting games like this, and with here they’ve crafted a complete FPS experience for the iPhone, with a long campaign, great gameplay, free online multiplayer, and perhaps the best graphics and sound ever for a portable platform. Oh, and it’s also a lot of fun to play. In a pinch I’ll take familiar fun over failed originality any day of the week, and that’s exactly what this game delivers with a flavor all its own.
The core experience is a fleshed-out campaign that includes 13 large and detailed levels as Kal Wardin, a retired and recently reactivated space marine charged with saving mankind from the xenos, a brutish and intellectually-lacking alien race that make great target practice. You’ve got a nice arsenal of toys to help make things easier, including pistols, shotguns, rocket launchers, and even xeno technology that should help turn the tide. Along the way you’ll travel across the universe, surviving oxygen-free spaces (Dead Space), manning turrets (Call of Duty), and hacking countless ammo crates (The Conduit) and manning a vehicle that bears a striking resemblance to a famous Warthog as you delve deeper into the mysterious of the xenos threat and try to make it home for breakfast.
Kal’s suit allows him a few bonus features that relate to his health meter that extend into the actual gameplay, which should help make FPS-veterans feel right at home Health taken from damage will be replenished if he manages to stay alive long enough, meaning straight blasting probably isn’t going to work. The other is his special statis-beam, which freezes a single enemy (Dead Space) long enough to catch your breath and blast him into smithereens. Of course, this beam takes off health, so use it sparingly and you’ll probably make it through things in one piece.
The game controls beautifully, thanks to a fully realized and implemented interface that makes great use of the platforms’ multi-touch capabilities. Movement is handled via a virtual ‘stick’ and looking via the ‘free’ space on the screen. Firing, jumping, and weapon reloading and switch-out are all virtual ‘buttons’ arranged to help simulate the layout of a stock gaming controller. Gameloft also used this system to great effect in their own Modern Combat: Sandstorm, but there are significant tweaks that really make these controls feel more responsive, such as one-button reload and that switching weapons is handled by swiping through your catalog.
Where things get really interesting is how the game allows you to completely customize and tweak your entire controls, including stock left/right-hand gameplay, sensitivity, auto-aim, and the like. While most of these (left-handed play notwithstanding) is standard stuff, the game goes one step further and allows you to singularly customize the entire user interface as you like, meaning practically every virtual stick, button, and menu option can be picked up and placed wherever you like. As the game is tethered to the unit’s single-screen the option to play as you want is far more useful than it was in The Conduit for the Wii, and those with fat/skinny fingers will be grateful that someone was looking out for them.
As a technological package, N.O.V.A. is one of the most accomplished mobile games ever released, iPhone or otherwise. The graphics are really fantastic, with silky-smooth frame-rates and great detail and animation on the various characters throughout, human or otherwise. The visuals are easily on par with the best PSP has to offer, and in some cases approach those of original Xbox games. The colors really pop, and I was surprised to see the various lighting and steam effects work so well, all helping make the game fun to look at.
The set designs hit every memorable locale you can think of, from lush forests to snowy embankments and the occasional alien home world, they’re all here and accounted for. Part of the sheer joy in seeing these visuals running on the smaller screen is simply SEEING them, meaning you’ll spend more time setting up your destructive strategy than simply reacting when pixilated blobs jump out of nowhere with a virtual ‘Boo!’ This extends right into the multiplayer modes, especially on levels that require some hot sniper-rifle action in larger locales.
The game’s booming, incredibly bombastic score is total and complete Halo, with a thumping synth-orchestra hitting every note that befits today’s best action-packed intergalactic space sagas. All kidding aside, it sounds great and even better when attached to a good pair of headphones. The voice-overs all sound like baked ham, but given the plot I suppose that’s part of their charm. Hearing Kal say “You’ve got me by the berries” was actually pretty funny. Nevertheless, they can be muted out of existence and the stock soundtrack can be replaced with tunes on your own device.
And fear not, first-generation iPhone/Touch users, as reports have the game running just fine on your relatively ‘antique’ hardware with nary a glitch or virtual hiccup, even during the most intense and hardware-shifting sequences.
The fun doesn’t have to end once the campaign is over, as N.O.V.A. has a full and completely playable online multiplayer mode to help keep your attention. With both local and online modes available from the start, getting online and joining the mayhem requires registering a free account with Gameloft Live (nice name) and jumping right in. The game’s stock five maps support up to 4-players all blasting each other to bits in various environments, some better suited to the close-knit action than others. While defying gravity and head-shots while sniping is fun, I wish there were more options to help keep things a bit fresher than simply running and gunning for kill totals. While you can change the color of your skin prior to the match (the green looks EXACTLY like Master Chief), that’s about it, and it’s a shame the core game’s Achievement system didn’t make it to the multiplayer.
Still, keep in mind that you’re able to play a fun and fully capable FPS multiplayer experience anywhere you like (on the iPhone), and the promise of future updates may add to the experience. Online leaderboards help keep track of your personal carnage, just the thing for you obsessive-types. Plus, an account with Gameloft Live is completely free, which isn’t something you get with that ‘other’ Live service.
N.O.V.A. is the best FPS experience yet for the iPhone platform, delivering a complete and fully engaging campaign that should hold players attention throughout its 13 large levels and free online multiplayer. The game looks and sounds great, and the controls are wonderfully fluid on the touch screen. The story and gameplay may be familiar but is this really so different than most home console FPS? The gaming industry is practically built on playing ‘following the leader,’ with imitators spitting out countless clones following the release of a hit game or concept. Ultimately, this game may be a clone, but its an accomplished clone, and worth your attention.
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